In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus gets really personal today. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…. if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” The Epistle of James echoes Jesus’ admonition from the other side of the relationship, from the perspective of the one confronted. James says, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (5:16).” Jesus talks about this sort of relationship conflict because well … it isn’t something any of us wants to talk about. People, including me, don’t tend to look forward to conversations about how their behavior may have harmed another person. Few of us ever want to say, “Yes, let’s talk about how I’ve hurt you.”
In fact, many of us have developed elaborate techniques to avoid having that conversation. James says simply, “Confess your sins to one another.” He doesn’t suggest that if you explain in great detail how you only had the best of intentions, and didn’t mean to hurt anyone, maybe you’re not to blame. Or, there is a much more difficult maneuver. It is expert level, but quite possible to achieve. You can withdraw and act so hurt that the accusation was ever brought up in the first place, that the whole situation gets turned around so that the person who initiated the conversation is the one who ends up apologizing. I’m not going to continue down that road, but I don’t think I am wrong that human beings tend to rely on some serious defenses to avoid having the very conversation that Jesus commends to us this morning when he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault…” One of the effects of the pandemic is that it has put extra pressure on the people we live with as we have been forced to do more and more from our homes. That’s likely what any of us are thinking about when Jesus discusses the periodic need to have sometime yet truthful conversations with those we depend upon.
Part of the reason why so many of us avoid these conversations is that we’ve learned somewhere along the way in our lives that conflict in relationships is bad and always destructive. And if that is what we think, and that is what our experience is, then we would have good reason to go to great lengths to avoid conflict and just not talk about what needs to be talked about. But, I really don’t think Jesus would encourage us to do anything that is bad for us. I personally have had plenty of arguments with him, where I was pretty sure that his advice was wrongheaded, but, every-time he has turned out to be right about what is good for me.
It may be that we think that these confrontational conversations that Jesus talks to us about this morning are bad and too hard, because we just haven’t learned how to have them. Frankly, anything seems impossible when you don’t know how to do it. Even a new remote control for my television, can push me to the breaking point of frustration, because I don’t know how to use it. But once I figure out that the more important the button is, the smaller they make it, then I’m eventually ok and I wonder what was so impossible about it in the first place. There is a lot more at stake in a conversation with a loved one, friend, or church member that begins, “You hurt me.” If our experience of those conversations is bad, it may just be that some of the people in that conversation were just lacking skills needed for the conversation to be healing, and even life-giving.
How to have that conversation is so important that it is part of the Christian faith and something to learn, and practice in church, so that we can have those conversations in a truthful healing way outside of the church. Critics of Christianity often put our emphasis upon sin and confession of sin in a negative light. They say that what we teach people is that they are bad and that is why they need to confess, over and over again, that they are bad and guilty. I’d like to suggest to you that these critics don’t understand the purpose of our language of sin and confession at all. Its purpose is exactly what Jesus says it is: it is to transform conflict into creative, positive energy in all of our most important relationships. In other words, confession leads to communion in our church services, but also in our personal lives.
If, as these critics suggest, we teach that the proper response to “You hurt me,” is to say, “you got me, I’m a sinner, you’re right about me, I’m guilty, I’m a bad egg,” then we’re not helping anyone. No one saying, “You hurt me” needs to hear that. That is not the healing they are seeking. And if we hear it that way, if we hear it only as blame and not as a desire for connection, then, no wonder, we feel compelled to muster all of our defenses. But that is not what Jesus’ language of sin and confession is about.
To confess, is most fundamentally, about understanding how one’s actions, or inaction, have affected other people. Or, more specifically, about showing another person that you understand what it is like to be them in relationship to you. “What it is like to be them in relationship to you.” It is that act of deep understanding that is healing, it is that that is called for by Jesus, not dramatic declarations of how terribly wrong or bad one is. It is out of that experience of feeling understood that forgiveness comes and relationships repair and deepen.
And it’s a conversation, to be truly had, that happens more than once. Notice that Jesus anticipates, on the one hand, that you may not be heard the first time, or, on the other hand, you may not be able to listen at first. No one is going to get this right the first time. Anything worthwhile takes time. It is not, “I said ‘I am sorry’ so I shouldn’t ever have to talk about this again. It looks more like, “yes, we are continuing to talk about this because this is a healing conversation. It’s a conversation that brings us closer together. It is not one that pushes us farther apart.”
When my daughter was quite young, after one of her early birthdays, I ate the rest of her birthday cake, the leftovers as it were. The next day, apparently, following the words of Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.” She informed me about how wronged she felt by that. I confessed to her that it was me, “yes, I ate your birthday cake.” (That still sounds bad after all these years). What she wanted wasn’t for me to confess to her what a bad dad I was. She didn’t want to have a bad dad! What she wanted to know was that I understood what it was like for her to live in the world of birthday cakes that would disappear anytime she fell asleep. And insofar as I was able to show her that I understood what it was like to be her, and not defend my right as Dad to eat all leftover birthday cake, that this conflict was transformed into an opportunity for greater love, trust, and finally, forgiveness.
In the push and pull of human life, with all the demands placed on us, and our all-too-human limits, needs, and desires, we’re bound to hurt one another. That is why it is so valuable to develop the skill of how to offer the experience of understanding of the other rather than defending oneself. But in concrete situations, when our very selves feel accused and in jeopardy, it is surprisingly difficult to get out of one’s own way. We need help and we have it ready at hand. Notice how Jesus concludes his teaching saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” It is his presence, if we can be open to it, that can give us the strength and assurance to set aside the current version of ourselves, and its justifications, and instead be open to the presence and experience of others even when it leads to confession and change.
When we are children, we learn right and wrong as a set of rules and believe in a world where it is those standards that are the source of the bond between human beings. As adults, rather than that sort of justice, we come to see that the real world is about the messy business of loving, understanding, and changing, about forgiving and being forgiven, and that forgiveness is a stronger bond than fragile notions of justice. As St. Paul says in the passage from his letter the Romans that we just read, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).
It is about forgiving the world for not being all that we wanted it to be; it is about forgiving ourselves for falling short of those standards of right and wrong; it is about forgiving those who have wronged us; and its about accepting the forgiveness of God and others when it is offered. Forgiveness is never deserved; it can never be demanded. It arises out of shared understanding and is always experienced as a gift.
All Saints’ is a safe community in which to learn skills that are utterly necessary everywhere else. Oh there are occasional conflicts, misunderstanding, and hurt from time to time, but this is a place where through Christ confession leads to communion and where we discover that it is Christ’s presence with us that gives us the strength to be open to a love and a connection with other people bigger than any of our own defenses. May we all experience Christ’s love for us as one that enables us to lower our defenses, confess our sins to one another in such a way that it leads to an experience of greater understanding, so we are free to love others as they are, and accept ourselves as forgiven and loved all the same. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet